Personal Learning

When you think back to the best type of learning experience you ever had, the name and face of that teacher usually come back into focus. There was something special about the experience for you. What was it? Is this something we can use in schools to improve teaching and learning at scale?

What Does Personal Learning Look Like?

Learners respond to teachers who look at them, know their name, ask them questions that make sense. Teachers enhance this relationship by following up in a friendly, professional, and non-judgemental way. Personal learning is a relationship that matters so much that students will get to class every day in order to experience this feeling of a learning relationship. We all like attention, but this is a particular type of attention, where teachers comment on the changes that students make on assignments, the improvement they make in reading and writing, the outcomes of student work that pushes the learner to revise, re-read, and demonstrate understanding growth.


Of course it would be great to teach everyone on a one-to-one basis but the scale of K-12 currently sits at about 50 million students to 3.7 million teachers and the diversity of the students is increasing:

“Total enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools increased from 49.4 million to 50.8 million students between fall 2009 and fall 2019. From fall 2019 to fall 2020, enrollment dropped by 3 percent to 49.4 million students.1,2 Total enrollment is projected to have rebounded to 50.1 million students in fall 2021 and then decrease again to 47.3 million students by fall 2030 (the last year of projected data available).3 In addition, racial/ethnic distributions of public school students across the country have shifted.”

National Center for Education Statistics

The Future Shifts and Looks Different

Percentage distribution of student enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools, by race/ethnicity: Fall 2009, fall 2020, and fall 2030

The data in this figure is described in the surrounding text.
National Center for Education Statistics

Strategies for the Changing Future

So it would seem useful to change our teaching strategy to match student changes in diversity and the need for personal learning by:

  • Training and hiring a more diverse teaching force
  • Offer smaller classes to increase personalization
  • Design a full-blown tutor program in every school

What does a Full-Blown Tutor Program Look Like?

Every teacher in every school should be able to pair up every student with adults that care about that student’s progress. This may look very different in each school. One solution is to add another teacher to the class, and/or to have older students tutor younger students. Perhaps another model is to have parents help out, and /or to recruit retired teachers who could help, and still another idea is a tutoring class that could be offered after school.

The key is to deepen the personal relationship between teachers and students. When students feel cared for, seen, and valued, they respond with incredible efforts. It is up to us to design that learning engagement to be as deep as real learning requires.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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